As if email inboxes weren't multitasking hard enough, Google has upped the ante by adding social networking to its Gmail service.
Its newest product, Google Buzz, incorporates status updates and shared content such as photos, video and links from people the user is connected to. Users can view this content either in the Gmail inbox, along with email messages, or in a separate Buzz "inbox" accessed by clicking a link in the left-hand navigation list within Gmail.
Although Gmail might account for about 10 to 15 percent of the email addresses on a B2C list (maybe as high as 25 percent on newer mailing lists), it does have several implications for email marketers:
1. Email inbox interfaces are busier than ever. Besides Gmail, email clients including Xobni and Outlook and Webmail services such as Yahoo have expanded inbox functionality. Yahoo, for example, recently added inline chat, a beefed-up calendar and links to Flickr and PayPal.
The functions are designed to integrate with and complement email, but they also can distract the user from reading email.
2. The inbox itself will be more crowded than ever. Buzz will send alerts whenever anyone the user follows posts fresh content. Your messages will face added competition that's even more relevant because it comes from people the user actively chooses to follow.
If they're exceptionally busy social networkers, expect to see these alerts push your email marketing messages farther away from the fresh-content sweet spot.
At this time, Buzz is brand new, so it's too early to predict its long-term impact. Google has a mixed track record--with some services such as Gmail continuing to gain market share, while services like Orkut and Wave seem to be relegated to also-ran status.
Here's how you can rise to the challenge of inboxes that have gone social:
1. Work harder to get your sending email address added to recipients' contact lists or address books. Not only does this make your email more deliverable through personal whitelisting, but also because Buzz automatically follows anyone on the user's contact list.
Ask for this at opt-in and in your welcome message as well as in the administrative area of your messages where you post recurring information.
2. Brand your "From" and subject lines. Your messages must stand out, now more than ever and in inboxes all over, not just Gmail. Your From and subject lines should reflect your company name, brand, newsletter name and the like.
Don't use a person's name or email address (those with "rock star" status can be exceptions). Vague subject lines will fade into the woodwork, so tell your story in the inbox (value proposition, call to action, etc.). Subject lines that surprise, delight, make you laugh or otherwise get the recipient to engage are never more vital.
3. One-to-one messaging must replace one-to-many broadcasts. Buzz is designed to keep its users in Gmail more often and longer than usual, so it might train them to check for new messages more often than once or twice daily.
However, alerts--not just from Buzz but also from other social networks like Facebook (assuming it will eventually be pulled in to Buzz) and Twitter--represent a flood of highly relevant material that could bury impersonal broadcast email messages.
Time will tell which content and approach will help you stand out. Personalization that reflects preferences and buying history, triggered emails and value-added transactional emails will become even more important.
Tracking your clicks and giving users many opportunities to tell you what they want will show you the right path.